So he helped with the creation of modern Roller Derby but didn’t know it: Frank Deford


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Frank has been a friend for longer than either of us want to think about. And he laughingly said “You will always be the Commissioner.”

I related elsewhere how we met in Oakland and he ended up writing the longest piece ever for a single issue of Sports Illustrated to date about the Roller Derby The March 1969 article was read by 10 million people, a different 10 million than the 15 million that watched our games every week on television across America and Canada. He created a whole new base of understanding about our strange game.

Had he been a fan of Roller Derby when he wrote it? No, he was fascinated with the concept of “barnstorming”, the one nighters we did across America for 4 months of the year; the people who were in it, behind it, who came to watch and why. And Roller Derby was a working class sport, without the high salaries and ticket prices that folks even then were complaining about. And service charges were not outrageous then, but still higher than the 99 cents that Brown Paper tickets charges on all tickets.

And after I had spent time cautioning the skaters about what they said to Frank (as he put it) “they opened their guts” and he got everything he wanted to write for the article and the book….and one prominent male skater made a pass at him, which he was kind enough not to mention to me until years later…..not a great tolerance by society for gay athletes at that time. And he seemed to have captured a pretty accurate image of me in that era.

Frank wasn’t a skater outside of occasional sojourns to a skating rink. He played basketball in high school and in college until his coach told him he wrote better about the game than playing it. And he developed as a writer and today writes about a lot more than sports, delivers an occasional piece for Sports Illustrated, has a weekly commentary on Wednesdays for NPR radio, and does occasional features on HBO Real Sports…..this time of year he and Carol are in Key West where he is working on his 19th book.

Out of the article came “Five Strides on the Banked Track”, the seminal book on Derby that is in such demand that it disappears from libraries and sells on Amazon for as much as $650. Little Brown did an initial small printing, and the book disappeared (including my copy).

So after all these years after the demise of the original Roller Derby, after Rollerjam came and went, modern Roller Derby is here. And Frank is thrilled. He has watched games on the internet and is amazed that a successful game can be played on a flat track and that, different from the original enterprise, it has become a movement, a therapy, for those engaged.

Shortly after Joan Weston’s tragic death from a debilitating disease, Frank was asked to write her obituary for the New York Times magazine, and he wrote such a beautiful tribute that the genesis for Rollerjam developed for the two producers in Tennessee. That the game ultimately failed was really a fault of the attraction they ultimately presented: a writer-created banked track story of good and evil with cages, helicopters, you name it. But the skaters were wonderful; a number are in Roller Derby, and three of the men were important parts of the World Cup Champion USA team.

http://i.cdn.turner.com/si/2010/writers/frank_deford/05/19/roller.derby.revival/Joan_Weston.jpg (Please click link to see Frank’s article on Joan Weston and the return of Modern Roller Derby)

It was just a few years after Rollerjam ended, with the memory of a skating game in people’s minds, that April and her crew brought in modern Roller Derby. I mentioned this connection to Frank and he was very pleased.

“If anything I wrote helped to results in the reincarnation of Roller Derby in the 21st century, then I am happy. I loved meeting and traveling with the Derby skaters of the earlier generation, and there seems to be such a bonding and almost a therapeutic connection in today’s game that most don’t realize.

And for even more of a connection, Timothy Travaglini, an MRDA skater and member, has been instrumental in having this classic book available to today’s Derbyites, followers, and all. He is with Open road media who has just issued on line a kindle (through amazon.com) and e-book version. Please click on the link at the top of the page.

And they asked the Commissioner to write a foreward.

“A (bout) Rose by any other name”


It has been awhile since I have been able to write two posts in a row.

I have columns in “Blood and Thunder” magazine and “Leadjammer” magazine and both are out soon, and I do some writing for http://www.Brownpapertickets.com.

But I saw an item today that seems to be upsetting some people. In the new set of WFTDA rules apparently the word “bout” has been redlined, which doesn’t mean that you can’t call your games that, but maybe a sense of official approval has been removed.

One comment as a result of the examiner.com piece on this change was “why are they taking this WFTDA term away from us?”

OK, a couple of things….I have always avoided the term “bout” because it brings up the images of boxers or UFC or worse wrestling, and for a sport that is trying to differentiate itself from those kind of images, I don’t think that is good….and of course I have called them games all my life.

And exactly where did the term “bout” come from? When April Ritzenhaler and her cohorts were starting modern banked track skating in Austin in 2002 she had just come from boxing training and when someone asked what the events should be called, she suggested “bout”. And of course the Texas Rollergirls flat track split off from TXRD and WFTDA was created, so it really isn’t even a WFTDA term…..and even April calls them “games” now.

Call them what you want…..Please just make sure they are fast moving, hard playing and entertaining.

And by the way, if you want a brand new copy of “Roller Derby to Rollerjam”, the fun pictorial history of the game from 1935 to 2000, I have put the remaining out of print copies on http://www.amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. Other new copies on Amazon for this wonderful read range from $92 to $654.

And in this official lexicon of Roller Derby you will never find the word “bout”.

▶ DERBY (1971) Trailer – ok, I made a film I loved….but what about the skaters and fans?


▶ DERBY (1971) Trailer – YouTube.

Click on link above to see short trailer for the film Derby.

I backed and produced this film in 1971, hoping to make a film all the Derby fans and skaters would like…..well it turned out to be an art film about America at that time that played 6 film festivals (from San Francisco to Dallas to Atlanta to Toronto to London, and was judged best films at most) and was loved by all major film critics, but the skaters and fans didn’t care much for it at all.

I am very proud of it….it was a groundbreaking cinema verite 40 years ago, and Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, and it was considered one of the ten best films of the year by most critics, but didn’t do well at the box office, which was not unusual for documentaries at this time. Because one of the Today show personalities loved it so much, in the late 90s I was on Today talking about it and the revival of Rollerjam.

40 years later we have “Derby Baby”…..two very different approaches to the game.

Some times you can’t put a monetary value on what you do that you like. I think one of my favorite reviews was by Sports Illustrated: (to paraphrase) “It is amazing that this is the first sports film about a suspect sport that is so honest. If you loved “The Knute Rockne Story” (a fabricated film about the legendary Notre Dame coach), then you will hate “Derby”.

It is available at Amazon; I have fresh VHS copies…..great Roller Derby action, but not really a Derby film. Remember if you watch it, it wasn’t scripted and the lighting and dialog is not always the best.

I will post the New York Times review in my next post.

One more great bit of excitement for Rollercon


Really exciting news…..my good friend Baron Wolman is coming to Rollercon.

I wrote about him in another post.  Baron was the first chief photographer for Rolling Stone, and his classic photographs from that era grace many galleries and all of the Hard Rock Cafes.

He was on stage at Woodstock, and you may have seen him on PBS recently when he introduced his photo book of that weekend.

If you go to http://www.baronwolman.com, you will see the amazing photographs he has produced; ….he wandered into our arena one day and started taking Derby photos, and they are the basis of the classic book: “From Roller Derby to Rollerjam”……no one else has ever caught the game the way he has.  At the top of his website click on “beyond rock” and you will get the idea.

This is how he captured Joan Weston and Ann Calvello…..(do not copy this photo without his permission!)  look at some of the other photos on his site.

Roller Derby, 1967

He recently published a book on “Groupies” which is absolutely beautiful.  And he created the wonderful fashion magazine of the 70′s “Rags”.

Anyway, he will be hanging with Judi and me (and I imagine looking for some great shots…..I would love him to do the great photo book on Modern Roller Derby people, so look Derby when you see him)

Although the greatest rock photographer, he is so cool.  check him out  at either at the Roll Models booth (#24), or at Brown Paper Tickets booth.  You want to get a photo with the commish and with the Legend.  I charge 19 cents…..I don’t know his fee.